Our goal for offering the ProMini Air receiver/transmitter is to allow those interested in “dead-rail” (radio control and battery power of a model railroad locomotive) to build a wireless, DCC compatible transmitters inexpensively and receivers for radio-control of model railroad locomotives in the US/Canadian 915MHz ISM band – the same band and protocol as the Tam Valley Depot and CVP Airwire transmitters and receivers (and the QSI Gwire receiver and no longer manufactured NCE GWire Cab wireless DCC throttle). You can also operate the ProMini Air transmitter and receiver in the European ISM band at 869.850MHz, and we have verified interoperability with Tam Valley Depot European DRS1 transmitters and receivers.
The “ProMini Air” receiver is compatible with the Tam Valley DRS1 transmitter, the CVP AirWire T5000 and T1300 wireless throttles, and the no longer manufactured NCE GWire CAB. The ProMini Air transmitter is compatible with the Tam Valley Depot DRS1 receiver, the CVP Airwire CONVRTR receivers, and the QSI Gwire Receiver. Of course, the ProMini Air transmitters and receivers are compatible with each other!
The pictures below give you an idea of how the ProMini Air transmitter and receiver are connected for operation.
The ProMini Air receiver/transmitter (Rx/Tx) kit is easy to assemble, requiring only the soldering in place of some pin rows, battery terminal (for the receiver option), and a Pro Mini PCB (not to be confused with the ProMini Air PCB) that are provided with the kit. The potential kit-builder should also be somewhat familiar with downloading firmware into micro-controller boards (an Arduino or clone Pro Mini in our case) using the Arduino IDE.
Note: We may include some of the “male” and “female” pin row connectors with the kit that may differ from the photos or descriptions here. Which pin rows go where is easy to determine since the transceiver daughtercard mounts with dual 5-position pin rows and the Pro Mini PCB mounts with two 12-position pin rows and a one two-position pin row, regardless of whether you use round or square pin rows.
The ProMini Air PCB, as you receive it, has the difficult-to-solder and easily-confused components already installed: the transceiver daughterboard, the surface-mount resistors and MOSFETs, and the 5V and 3.3V regulators. The transceiver has a U.FL antenna connector that interfaces to the provided Anaren whip antenna. If a remote antenna is required, U.FL to SMA or RP-SMA antenna cables are widely available.
Shown below is a close-up of the round pin headers. Compared to standard square-pin headers, round pin headers reduce the overall height of the assembled ProMini Air PCB when the Pro Mini PCB is mounted.
Step 1: Solder the 6-position DIP pins into the Pro Mini PCB as shown below. You can carefully bend the pins inward over the Pro Mini PCB to prevent clearance interference with other components on the assembled ProMini Air PCB. The angle of the bent pins should allow for the insertion of the USB connector that we discuss later.
Step 2: Install the supplied the two 5-position male pin rows into the transceiver daughterboard. The Anaren PCB is surface-mount, so we mount it on a dual 5-position pin row interface PCB for ease of soldering and interface. The kit provides two female rows of 5-position pin rows that you can solder to the ProMini Air PCB that allows easy insertion/removal of the transceiver daughterboard with its corresponding dual rows of male pins. Or, you can directly solder the male pins to the ProMini Air PCB for a strong, but permanent mount.
Step 3: Install the standard DIP pins and battery terminal on the ProMini Air PCB, as shown below. If you are using the ProMini Air as a transmitter, you can omit the battery terminal installation because the “DCC Converter” PCB will supply GND and +5V power as well as 5V logic DCC on the column of 3 pins adjacent to the 4-pin I2C display interface at the lower right of the ProMini Air PCB shown below.
Step 4: Solder the round DIP pins to the Pro Mini PCB and the ProMini Air PCB. The male rows will be mounted underneath and soldered on the top of the Pro Mini PCB, and the female rows will be mounted to the top and soldered underneath the ProMini Air PCB.
The technique I use is to insert, but do not solder, the round DIP pins onto the Pro Mini PCB, as shown below (12-position left, 12-position right, and two-position P4/P5). I then overlay the ProMini Air PCB on top of this temporary assembly, aligning the round pins with the corresponding mount holes in the ProMini Air PCB. Be sure that the extra, unused holes in the ProMini Air PCB align with the Pro Mini PCB’s USB pins!!!
Holding all of this temporary assembly together, solder the pins to the bottom of the ProMini Air PCB and then carefully turn the assembly over and solder the round pins to the top of the Pro Mini PCB. I use this technique to provide accurate alignment when the Pro Mini PCB removed and then re-inserted into the ProMini Air PCB.
Of course, you may have a better or more comfortable technique for soldering pin rows into place!
Below is the final mating of the Pro Mini PCB to the ProMini Air PCB with the Pro Mini PCB soldered to the male round pin rows. Once you solder the round pin rows to the Pro Mini PCB “in situ,” the Pro Mini PCB can be carefully lifted off the ProMini Air PCB, along with its male rows of round pins, for firmware loading.
That’s it for hardware assembly!
The ProMini Air can be configured as either a receiver (Rx) or transmitter (Tx) by loading firmware into the Pro Mini using a “USB Breakout Module” (available here or here) that inserts into the USB DIP pins as shown below. Since the Pro Mini PCB operates at +5V, please ensure that you use a 5V USB Breakout Module, NOT one that supplies 3.3V! Note the alignment of GND and DTR on the Pro Mini and the USB Breakout Module. Some clones of the Pro Mini have the USB pin-out reversed, so you will need to turn over the USB Breakout Module before insertion!
Once you connect the USB Breakout Module to a PC via a USB cable, the Arduino IDE can be used to download the ProMini Air’s compiled firmware. In the Arduino IDE, to set the correct microcontroller board, select: Tools > Board > Arduino Pro or Pro Mini. To set the correct chip, select: Tools > Processor > ATmega328P (5V, 16 MHz). To set the correct port, select: Tools > Port > the_correct_USB_serial_port, which you will need to figure out. I use the “AVRISP mkII” Programmer (Tools > Programmer > AVRISP mkII) because it was the default selected by the IDE.
Important Note: Since the ProMini Air’s firmware makes extensive use of the EEPROM, before installing the ProMini Air transmitter or receiver firmware, we strongly advise that you completely clear the Pro Mini’s EEPROM. Use the Arduino IDE and selecting File > Examples > Examples for Arduino Pro or Pro Mini > EEPROM > eeprom_clear program. Once eeprom_clear has been compiled and downloaded to the Pro Mini, there will be a short delay, and then one of the Pro Mini’s diagnostic LED’s will turn on continuously. Then, compile and install the ProMini Air firmware as described below.
The source code is available from this GitHub site. The source code should be placed in a directory where the Arduino IDE can find it. The subdirectory structure should be maintained so that the Arduino IDE can properly access the “project.” Depending on whether you want a transmitter or receiver, edit libraries/config/config.h to select the “define” for the transmitter or receiver.
For a receiver (Rx), config.h should look like:
... /////////////////////////////////// // vvv User Entry Area Below vvv //////////////////////// // Set band of operation //////////////////////// /* Use ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For 896/915MHz EU/NA ISM bands*/ #define NAEU_900MHz /* For EU-only 434MHz ISM band*/ // #define EU_434MHz /* For World-Wide 2.4GHz ISM band*/ // #define NAEU_2p4GHz ////////////////////////////// // Set Transmitter or Receiver ////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For receiver*/ #define RECEIVER /* For transmitter*/ // #define TRANSMITTER ///////////////////////////////////////////////// // Set the default channel for NA/EU 900MHz only! ///////////////////////////////////////////////// #if defined(NAEU_900MHz) /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* To set the default to NA channel 0 for 869/915MHz ISM bands only!*/ #define NA_DEFAULT /* To set the default to EU channel 17 for 869/915MHz ISM bands only!*/ // #define EU_DEFAULT #endif ////////////////////////////////////////// // Set the transceiver's crystal frequency ////////////////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For 27MHz transceivers (e.g., Anaren 869/915MHz (CC110L) and Anaren 869MHz (CC1101) radios)*/ #define TWENTY_SEVEN_MHZ /* For 26MHz transceiver (almost all other radios, including Anaren 433MHz (CC1101), 915MHz (CC1101), and 2.4GHz (CC2500) radios)*/ // #define TWENTY_SIX_MHZ //////////////////////////////// // Set the LCD's default address //////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* The LCD display's default address.*/ /* O=Open jumper (=High); C=Closed jumper (=Low),*/ /* addresses are A2,A1,A0 from left to right on the boards*/ /* The address range for TI serial drivers */ /* PC8574: 0x20(CCC=LLL) to 0x27(OOO=HHH)(default)*/ #define LCDADDRESSDEFAULT 0x27 /* PC8574A: 0x38(CCC=LLL) to 0x3F(OOO=HHH)(default)*/ // #define LCDADDRESSDEFAULT 0x3F ... // ^^^ User Entry Area ^^^^ ////////////////////////////// ...
If you want a transmitter (Tx), then config.h should be
... /////////////////////////////////// // vvv User Entry Area Below vvv //////////////////////// // Set band of operation //////////////////////// /* Use ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For 896/915MHz EU/NA ISM bands*/ #define NAEU_900MHz /* For EU-only 434MHz ISM band*/ // #define EU_434MHz /* For World-Wide 2.4GHz ISM band*/ // #define NAEU_2p4GHz ////////////////////////////// // Set Transmitter or Receiver ////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For receiver*/ // #define RECEIVER /* For transmitter*/ #define TRANSMITTER ///////////////////////////////////////////////// // Set the default channel for NA/EU 900MHz only! ///////////////////////////////////////////////// #if defined(NAEU_900MHz) /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* To set the default to NA channel 0 for 869/915MHz ISM bands only!*/ #define NA_DEFAULT /* To set the default to EU channel 17 for 869/915MHz ISM bands only!*/ // #define EU_DEFAULT #endif ////////////////////////////////////////// // Set the transceiver's crystal frequency ////////////////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* For 27MHz transceivers (e.g., Anaren 869/915MHz (CC110L) and Anaren 869MHz (CC1101) radios)*/ #define TWENTY_SEVEN_MHZ /* For 26MHz transceiver (almost all other radios, including Anaren 433MHz (CC1101), 915MHz (CC1101), and 2.4GHz (CC2500) radios)*/ // #define TWENTY_SIX_MHZ //////////////////////////////// // Set the LCD's default address //////////////////////////////// /* Uncomment ONLY ONE #define*/ /* The LCD display's default address.*/ /* O=Open jumper (=High); C=Closed jumper (=Low),*/ /* addresses are A2,A1,A0 from left to right on the boards*/ /* The address range for TI serial drivers */ /* PC8574: 0x20(CCC=LLL) to 0x27(OOO=HHH)(default)*/ #define LCDADDRESSDEFAULT 0x27 /* PC8574A: 0x38(CCC=LLL) to 0x3F(OOO=HHH)(default)*/ // #define LCDADDRESSDEFAULT 0x3F ... // ^^^ User Entry Area ^^^^ ////////////////////////////// ...
Note that two additional options are available for using transceivers that operate with 27MHz (such as the FCC/IC/CE-approved Anaren transceivers) or 26MHz transceivers and whether the operation is for North American or European operation (the latter of which only operates at 869.850MHz).
After downloading the firmware into the Pro Mini completes, please do not remove the USB connection from the computer until the “secondary” LED, which indicates attempted communication over the SPI (serial peripheral interface), flashes on (it will not be bright). This will ensure that the initial round of writes to the blank EEPROM was completed!
Once the ProMini Air receiver or transmitter firmware is installed in the Pro Mini and inserted into the ProMini Air PCB, the ProMini Air is ready for integration!
To complete the integration of the ProMini Air receiver (Rx) or transmitter (Tx), you must establish several connections.
Overview of Connections
See the picture below for an overview of the connections to and from the ProMini Air. Which connections used depends on whether the ProMini Air will act as a receiver (Rx) or a transmitter (Tx). THERE IS NO PROTECTION AGAINST INCORRECT BATTERY OR EXTERNAL POWER CONNECTIONS!!! The ProMini Air will be destroyed immediately if the GROUND and POSITIVE POWER SUPPLY are reversed!
The U.FL connector on the Anaran transceiver may be directly connected to the provided Anaren whip antenna, or you can connect a U.FL to SMA or RP-SMA cable the ProMini Air to a remotely-mounted antenna. Also, a two-pin output provides Ground and the DCC input to (Tx) or output from (Rx) the RF transceiver board as signals to an oscilloscope for waveform review.
The ProMini Air has several connections that provide power, I2C display outputs, and 5V logic DCC inputs or outputs.
We will break down these connections for the ProMini Air receiver and transmitter in the next two sections.
Starting with the ProMini Air configured as a receiver (Rx), there are several options for providing power. The first option is to use external battery power and jumper the +5V and +5V (Battery) pins together to use the on-board 5V regulator to provide board +5V supply.
Since you may not like the heat generated by the onboard 5V regulator when you supply power with external battery power and install the jumper, as an alternative, you may use an external +5V power supply, as shown below where the external power supply provides Ground and +5V. Of course, you do NOT install the jumper.
The ProMini Air receiver must connect to an external DCC amplifier that converts the 5V logic DCC from the ProMini Air receiver to DCC A/B that a DCC decoder requires. This DCC amplifier uses battery power and the inputs from the ProMini Air receiver to provide the power and DCC messages, coded as a bipolar DCC waveform, to the decoder for both power and DCC messages. These “DCC amplifiers” are usually medium to large amperage amplifiers that accept pulse width modulation (PWM) input to provide precision output control for electric motors. The maximum PWM frequency of these amplifiers is usually high enough (> 20kHz) to reproduce DCC packets accurately.
Some DCC amplifiers have their specialized connector configurations, as shown below, for a GROVE-compliant amplifier.
Integration of the ProMini Air Receiver into a Locomotive
Of course, the real purpose of the ProMini Air receiver is to integrate it into a locomotive for wireless DCC control using an onboard battery as power. An excellent, reasonably-priced (about $14 US as of 2020), high-power (13A continuous) DCC amplifier may be purchased here as shown below. Considerably smaller (0.8″ x 1.3″), but more expensive high-amperage amplifiers (about $30 US as of 2020) that have been used with success can be found at Pololu here or here.
Now, let’s turn the ProMini Air used as a transmitter (Tx) of DCC messages from any DCC compatible throttle.
The photo below shows the connections between an interface board that takes throttle DCC A/B inputs (“track” DCC) and rectifies these inputs to provide Ground and +5V power supply output. This “DCC Converter” PCB also “taps off” the DCC A input and converts it to a 5V logic DCC output that is suitable for the ProMini Air transmitter. These outputs provide to the ProMini Air transmitter as shown below with Ground, +5V power, and 5V logic DCC input. The “DCC Converter” PCB is available from Blueridge Engineering, or the user can make this uncomplicated board based on the schematic shown below. Note: the ProMini Air transmitter IS NOT connected to a battery since it receives its power from the “DCC Converter” PCB.
Below is a schematic of the straightforward circuit that takes throttle DCC input and converts it to Ground, +5V power, and 5V logic DCC for the ProMini Air receiver.
The user can change the ProMini Air transmitter’s Channel (Airwire channels 0-16) and Power Level (0-10) by setting the DCC throttle’s address to that of the ProMini Air transmitter’s (9000 by default). Then, using the throttle’s OPS mode, change the value of a configuration variable (CV255 for Channel: 0-16, and CV254 for Power Level: 0-10), exiting OPS mode, and changing the throttle back to the locomotive’s DCC address.
Receiver/Transmitter Antenna Connections
For the ProMini Air transmitter, we strongly urge you to use the FCC/IC-approved Anaren “whip” antenna supplied with the Anaren transceiver that is surface-mounted to a 10-pin interface daughterboard. This Anaren whip antenna/transceiver combination is the FCC/IC-approved as an “intentional radiator.” For experimentation purposes, antennas for the ProMini Air transmitter can be purchased on-line from many sites. For fixed installations of the ProMini Air transmitter, we suggest the reputable products from Linx such as their SMA one-half wave antennas with an internal counterpoise. You can find these antennas at Digi-Key, e.g., ANT-916-OC-LG-SMA ($10.55) and ANT-916-CW-HWR-SMA ($12.85). The former antenna has a slightly better gain (2.2dBi versus 1.2dBi) but is somewhat longer (6.76” versus 4.75”).
The ProMini Air receiver or transmitter provides diagnostic outputs that are not required for operation, but are useful for troubleshooting or just for fun:
- The transceiver’s output (in Rx mode) or input (in Tx mode) can be monitored on the output DIP pins that are described above.
- “I2C” outputs that can drive an inexpensive 2 row, 16 column I2C LCD display.
The ProMini Air software assumes that the I2C LCD address is 0x27 (=39 decimal). Another often-used address is 0x3F (=63 decimal). Changing the address can be controlled by adjusting the following lines in the config.h file, and then recompiling and reloading into the Pro Mini.
... // The LCD display's default address. // The address range for TI serial drivers // PC8574: 0x20(CCC=LLL) to 0x27(OOO=HHH)(default) and // PC8574A: 0x38(CCC=LLL) to 0x3F(OOO=HHH)(default) // O=Open jumper (=High); C=Closed jumper (=Low), // addresses are A2,A1,A0 from left to right on the boards #define LCDADDRESSDEFAULT 0x27 ...
You can also change this address by going into the “OPS” mode to reset either the ProMini Air transmitter or receiver. For the transmitter, you use the DCC throttle that connects to the ProMini Air transmitter (by default at DCC address 9000). For the ProMini Air receiver, you use the wireless DCC throttle transmitting to the ProMini Air receiver (by default at DCC address 9001). In both cases, you set CV243 to the appropriate I2C LCD address. The EEPROM permanently stores the changed address, but this new address is not operative until you power cycle the ProMini Air.
Configuration and Testing
By default, the ProMini Air receiver and transmitter are configured to operate on Airwire Channel 0. This default can be changed by setting the DCC address to 9001(Rx)/9000(Tx) (the default, which can be changed as described in the Users Manual) to access the ProMini Air transmitter, and in OPS or Programming-on-the-Main (POM) mode setting CV255 to the desired channel. Valid channels are 0-16 for North Americal Operation or Channel 17 (869.85MHz) for European operation.
Should the ProMini Air receiver fail to detect valid DCC packets on its default Channel during startup, it will cycle through all Airwire Channels to find a Channel producing valid DCC packets. If this cycling fails to find a valid Channel, the ProMini Air receiver will change to Channel 0 and wait for a valid RF DCC signal. This change of Channel is not permanent, and on a restart, the ProMini Air will revert to its default channel.
There are several other configuration options available through “OPS” mode programming, as described in the ProMini Air Users Manual.
We strongly urge the user to test the ProMini Air before the final deployment. At the least, an inexpensive I2C LCD display can be purchased here or here (and numerous other locations) to gain some insight into the ProMini Air’s state. This display is especially valuable when using the ProMini Air as a transmitter.
Examples of Testing
In the examples below, the Yellow waveform is the signal from/to the RF transceiver for Rx/Tx, respectively, and the blue waveform is one channel of the resulting DCC (Rx) sent to the decoder or DCC received from the throttle via wireless transmission (Tx).
The photo below shows the ProMini Air operating as a receiver. Of course, an RF transmitter wirelessly sends DCC packets. This transmitter may be a dedicated wireless DCC throttle, such as the Airwire Tx5000. Or, it may be a transmitter that converts standard “track DCC” to wireless DCC such as the Tam Valley Depot DRS1 transmitter or the ProMini Air used as a transmitter (as discussed in the next section)!
On the LCD, “My Ad: #” is the DCC address of the ProMini Air itself. The “(L)” means “long” address. Displayed on the second line is the Channel number and whether DCC “filtering” is “off” (Filter: 0, as shown) or “on” (Filter: 1).
The photo below shows the oscilloscope waveforms when there is no valid RF DCC signal. With filtering off (Filter: 0), the DCC sent to the decoder reproduces the random pulses generated by the receiver.
These two photos show the ProMini Air’s transceiver and DCC amplifier output when valid RF DCC is received and when no valid RF DCC is received. DCC filtering is off, so the DCC amplifier’s output reproduces the transceiver’s DCC in both cases.
The user can reconfigure the ProMini Air receiver using the throttle’s “OPS” mode. Setting the wireless throttle DCC address to 9001 now shows that the Msg address (“Msg Ad: #”) matches the ProMini Air receiver’s address (“My Add: #”).
In OPS mode, change CV246 to “1”, which will turn “on” the ProMini Air receiver’s DCC filtering.
The display now shows that DCC filtering is “on.”
Exiting OPS mode and changing the throttle to the locomotive’s address, now shows an updated “Msg Ad: #” with DCC filtering “on.”
Here is the transceiver’s and DCC amplifier’s DCC output since we are transmitting valid RF DCC.
If we turn off the wireless transmitter/throttle sending RF DCC, now the transceiver outputs random pulses (yellow). Since filtering is “on,” the ProMini Air receiver firmware detects “bad” waveforms that do not appear to represent a valid DCC packet. The ProMini Air receiver then outputs a constant-level signal that causes the DCC amplifier to output a high level on DCC A (blue), and zero on DCC B (not shown). This behavior is similar the that of the Airwire receivers. However, the detection mechanism for Airwire receivers is simply the lack of a sufficient frequency of DCC “IDLE” packets, not an analysis of the transceiver’s pulse train.
Repeating the process of changing the wireless throttle’s DCC address to 9001, going into “OPS” mode, changing CV246 to “0”, exiting “OPS” mode, and changing back to the locomotive’s DCC address will now set DCC filtering to “off.”
So, now when we turn off the wireless DCC throttle/transmitter, the DCC amplifier’s output (blue) will reproduce the random pulses output by the RF transceiver (yellow).
We now turn our attention to testing when the ProMini Air is used as a transmitter.
The display will alternate between showing the ProMini Air transmitter’s DCC address (“My Ad: #”) and the transmitted DCC packet’s DCC address (“Msg Ad: #”). The transmitting Channel (“Ch: #”) and Power Level (“PL: #”) display on the second line.
Below is an oscilloscope trace of the input DCC from the throttle (blue) and the DCC transmitted by the RF transceiver on the ProMini Air transmitter. Since the wireless DCC must keep Airwire RF receiver’s “happy” with numerous DCC “IDLE” packets, the ProMini Air transmitter evaluates the incoming DCC from the throttle. When the throttle outputs frequent, redundant DCC packets, the ProMIni Air transmitter occasionally inserts DCC “IDLE” packets instead of one of the redundant packets. So, the input DCC and the transmitted DCC will not precisely match. Since DCC throttles send many redundant DCC packets, the locomotive will receive sufficient DCC packets to operate correctly.
The ProMini Air transmitter can be reconfigured by setting the throttle’s DCC address to 9000 (which can be changed) and then going into the “OPS” mode to set configuration variables (CV) to new values.
Once we have changed the throttle’s DCC address to 9000, note that the message address (“Msg Ad: #”) now matches the ProMini Air’s address (“My Ad: #”).
For example, while in OPS mode, changing CV246 to “6”, will reset the ProMini Air transmitter’s Power Level to 6, as indicated by the display shown below.
After exiting the “OPS” mode, we see that the display reflects the new Power Level (“PL: #”).
Changing the throttle’s DCC address back to the locomotive’s address will sometimes show “Msg Ad: 255(S)”, which means that the ProMini Air transmitter sent out a DCC “IDLE” packet to make Airwire receiver’s “happy.”
A display refresh (every 4 seconds) will most likely display the locomotive’s DCC address, which is 1654. The “(L)” means “long” address.
Conclusion and Further Information
The ProMini Air is an inexpensive and hopefully fun introduction to wireless DCC control of your model railroad locomotive!
Please see this Blueridge Engineering site for further information on the purchase and assembly of ProMini Air kits. The prices will range from $40 to $50 that includes a DCC amplifier for the receiver and a DCC converter for the transmitter.